To keep Tyler Stephenson healthy and in the lineup every day this season, the Reds have opted to carry three catchers on the active roster. It sounded like a fine idea on paper during the offseason when the Reds signed Luke Maile and Curt Casali to one-year deals. But as the plan has unfolded during the regular season, its shortcomings have become glaring.
Our own Kyle Berger wrote about the three-catcher plan in mid-April. His conclusion:
“Regardless of how the Reds decide to resolve the catching logjam, it’s fairly clear that a move would be beneficial at this point. The risk, of course, is that if the Reds would move on from one of the backups and an injury would occur, they’d be in a similar situation to last year. Still, even in that case, the Reds are likely comfortable enough giving the majority of catching time to any of Stephenson, Casali, or Maile, should one of them get hurt … In the meantime, the added roster flexibility could help this team significantly.”
As we head into the month of June, the Reds are still carrying three catchers. And with two months of baseball already complete, it’s tough to say the plan has been a success.
Evaluating the three-catcher plan
If Stephenson continued to hit like he did in 2021 and 2022, the Reds could live with two redundant, subpar bats on a four-man bench. In his first two full seasons, Stephenson hit .297/.368/.448. His 117 wRC+ the last two seasons was seventh among all catchers with at least 500 plate appearances. There were some warning signs that his 2022 performance (134 wRC+) wasn’t sustainable. His batting average on balls in play was extremely elevated (.409), and his strikeout rate skyrocketed from 18.7% in 2021 to 25.7% in 2022. So far in 2023, those concerns have seemed warranted. Stephenson has underperformed, with an 86 wRC+ in spite of a .357 BABIP through 213 plate appearances. The concerning swing-and-miss issues haven’t gone away either (19th percentile in K%, 17th in whiff rate).
Luke Maile has outperformed expectations (103 wRC+), albeit in just 55 plate appearances. Curt Casali has done next to nothing at the plate (18 wRC+ in 60 plate appearances), but is well-regarded for his ability to call a game behind the plate. As a group, Reds catchers have a 77 wRC+, 10th-worst of any team in baseball.
At the beginning of the season, Stephenson was playing first base and designated hitter when he didn’t catch. But that plan has already changed. Spencer Steer has hit well and Nick Senzel has come around while playing his natural position, third base. With Wil Myers out and otherwise hitting poorly, Steer has become the everyday first baseman over the last few weeks while Senzel plays third on most days.
Stephenson hasn’t played first base since April 30, leaving him as the DH on days he doesn’t catch or rest. With Stephenson struggling at the plate, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Reds have received below-average production from the DH position. The league-average DH is hitting .245/.324/.425 with a 105 wRC+ in 2023. Reds designated hitters are batting .249/.346/.337 with an 86 wRC+, and most of those at-bats have come from Stephenson. He’s started 23 games at DH, and no other player has gotten more than seven starts there.
Stephenson has shown signs of coming around with the bat over the last week or so. But given his lack of power and increasing whiffs, it has become questionable whether it’s worth sacrificing roster flexibility for his bat.
The issue could come to a head as Cincinnati’s top prospects are poised to arrive in the big leagues.
Accommodating the incoming prospects
A promotion for Elly De La Cruz, arguably baseball’s top prospect, is imminent. It could come as soon as this weekend. The 21-year-old has adjusted to Triple-A rapidly, hitting .304/.401/.659 with 11 home runs, 11 steals, and a 157 wRC+ in 162 plate appearances. Most importantly, he’s addressed his one glaring weakness — plate discipline — by striking out less (26.5 K%) and walking at a career-best clip (13.6 BB%).
Christian Encarnacion-Strand may not be far behind. He’s hitting .341/.387/.710 with 13 home runs and a 165 wRC+ in 150 plate appearances with the Bats. Similar to De La Cruz, CES is working to improve his plate discipline. He’s walked nine times (6.0 BB%) and has a 43.2% chase rate. MLB pitchers would likely exploit that aggressiveness. Encarnacion-Strand has apparently gotten the memo about what he needs to do to earn a promotion, drawing six walks in his last four games. When he shows he can make good swing decisions consistently, he’ll find himself in the majors as well.
With an abundance of infielders and only four spots to play them all, something has to give. De La Cruz plays shortstop and third base. Encarnacion-Strand plays first and third base. The Reds will have to figure out how to get both prospects in the lineup while also keeping Steer, Jonathan India, and Matt McLain on the field every day. That’s five players for four infield spots — which leads us back to Stephenson as a designated hitter.
Can the Reds continue to give Stephenson regular at-bats at DH? In the short term, yes. Barring unforeseen circumstances, De La Cruz will arrive in the majors before Encarnacion-Strand. David Bell can mix and match to get Steer (1B), India (2B), McLain (SS), and De La Cruz (3B) in the lineup simultaneously. It could mean a reduction in playing time or a return to a utility role for Senzel. Stephenson could continue to DH periodically. India could DH on days when Stephenson catches, with McLain sliding to second base, De La Cruz to shortstop, and Senzel playing third base.
But things will get far more complicated when Encarnacion-Strand arrives. Using Stephenson as a DH would mean sitting one of Steer, India, McLain, De La Cruz, or Encarnacion-Strand since none of them play outfield. If Stephenson receives less time at DH, he’ll need to catch more to keep him in the lineup. Perhaps he would go from catching three to four times per week, with Casali/Maile covering the other games. At that point, it would make little sense to continue carrying three right-handed catchers who don’t play any other positions. Casali and Maile already start sparingly, and this would reduce their playing time further. The roster spot would be better spent on a player with some versatility who brings more to the table with the bat.
Oh, and remember some guy named Joey Votto? He could return to the 1B/DH mix if his surgically repaired shoulder cooperates, throwing yet another wrench into the situation. Will the Reds relegate a franchise legend to a bench role? Maybe, but probably not.
In other words, it’s going to get increasingly difficult to justify carrying three catchers.
As has been said many times over the last year, having too many talented players can be a “good” problem to have. One way or another, though, the Reds have to solve the playing time puzzle when the next wave of prospects arrive. There are also lingering questions about where everyone will play in the long run, and those questions will keep coming as Noelvi Marte creeps closer to the big leagues.
In the short term, however, the club is going to have to rethink its current roster construction when De La Cruz and Encarnacion-Strand make it to the big leagues. There are many decisions to be made. How will the team move forward with (or without) Kevin Newman and Jose Barrero? What is Senzel’s eventual role? What will be done with Myers, who has been a massive free-agent flop?
With Barrero and Senzel, there’s at least some flexibility because they can play the outfield. Stephenson only plays one position. Casali and Maile only play one position. To find playing time for the prospects, logic points to reducing Stephenson’s time as a designated hitter. That, in turn, makes carrying three catchers even more cumbersome and unnecessary than it already is. Stephenson is an above-average hitter for a catcher, but he hasn’t proven to be someone the Reds should build their roster around. To maximize flexibility, offensive production, and player development, moving on from Casali or Maile is going to become necessary sooner rather than later.
Featured photo by John McCoy/Icon Sportswire